Industrial Hemp (Cannabis sativa)

Cannabis sativa L.

Cannabis sativa L., is most commonly known as marijuana. However, C. sativa is also the name for industrial hemp, a plant initially cultivated thousands of years ago for its fibrous properties; it is still commonly used in the production of cloth, paper, oil, food, fuel, building materials and medicine.

Cannabis L.
Cannabis sativa L.

Botanical Information

Cannabis sativa L. is a part of the Cannabaceae family, the Cannabis genus, and C. sativa species. Cannabaceae is a small family of herbaceous flowering plants, which also includes Humulus (hops) and Celtis (hackberries). Members of Cannabaceae have 5 sapels and 5 stames that are opposite sepals. The fruits are achenes and the seeds are fleshy with a little endosperm and curved or coiled embryo (Flora of North America n.d.).

The leaves and flowers of C. sativa contain a hallucinogenic drug known as delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (Scheifele 2009). However, industrial hemp is not to be confused with marijuana. Although the two plants share the same binomial name, industrial hemp is a significantly different variety from the plant that is harvested for its psychoactive properties. In most countries, industrial hemp must contain no more than 0.3% THC, while cannabis grown for marijuana contains significantly more (between 3% and 15%) THC (Huntrods 2008). Often, C. sativa is divided into subspecies, with C. sativa L. subsp. sativa referring to plants with a lower THC content, taller hollow stems with longer internodes, and less branching than plants grown for drug content (Flora of North America n.d.). The differentiation between subspecies enables the plant to be grown legally in many countries for uses in various industries.

Physical Description

C. sativa seeds

Hemp seeds are smooth and can contain 29%-34% oil. The seeds are one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch long (USDA 2000) . Like other members of Cannabaceae, C. sativa L. has a taproot. Industrial hemp seeds grow to mature fiber in 60-90 days. Hemp has a single, main stalk. When grown as a fiber crop, hemp may be as tall as 2-4 meters without branching (Schiefele 2009) . The stalk has an outer bark that contains the bast, or long tough fiber. Bast fibers are similar in length to soft wood fibers and have low lignin content. The short white fibers, called hurds, are found in the core of the stem and are similar to hard wood fibers. Hemp varieties grown for fiber may have between 15%-25% bast fibers (Schiefele 2009) .

Cannabis sativa L. distribution. Green refers to presence of the plant. From USDA 'Plants Database'

Geographical Distribution

Members of the family Cannabaceae are found nearly worldwide. However, these plants are indigenous to and widely cultivated in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

C. sativa can grow in a variety of soils but thrives on loose well-drained loam soil. It often grows well in areas where corn produces high yields (USDA 2000) . Hemp is often introduced as a non-native species and can be found even in waste land (Flora of North America n.d.) . Hemp requires plentiful moisture and nutrients to produce high yields (USDA 2000) .

World leaders of hemp production are Canada, Germany, England, and France. China also harvests a significant amount of hemp, providing most of the hemp for the US hemp clothing industry. The overall majority of hemp imported to the US comes from Canada (Huntrods 2008) .


There are many advantages to using industrial hemp as a fiber and wood substitute. US tobacco growers are exploring industrial hemp as an alternative crop as tobacco​ and corn prices continue to decline. There is a burgeoning market for hemp and other natural, sustainable fibers. As a fibrous material, hemp is characterized by its strength, durability, and resistance to rot. Hemp contains small amounts of lignin, allowing the fiber to be bleached without chlorine. Hemp is also biodegradable.

Hemp is an extremely versatile plant and can be grown in a variety of different climates and environments. Hemp is capable of extremely rapid growth under ideal conditions (Scheifele 2009) . Hemp is not commonly prone to disease or pests. In favorable conditions, hemp is competitive with most weeds, eliminating the need for herbicides (USDA 2000) .

Hemp stem showing fibers

Other specific agricultural benefits of hemp cultivation include:

  • Decreased reliance on fossil fuels
  • More efficient use of energy
  • Soil redemption
  • Forest conservation
  • Agricultural pesticide use reduction

Hemp could also be incorporated into corn-soybean rotation in order to improve farm profitability (NAIHC n.d.) .

Industrial Uses of Hemp

Human Uses of Hemp
Hemp products are found in a niche market that can largely be satisfied by imports. However, the demand for hemp, as with other natural fibers, is growing. As of 2005, the Hemp Industries Association reported that sales of hemp goods were rising by 50% per year (Leinwand 2005). In 2007, it was estimated that the retail value of hemp products sold in the United States was $350 million (Huntrods 2008) .

Industrial hemp can be grown as a fiber or food crop. Hemp is a bast fiber, similar to flax, jute, and kenaf. However, only a small portion of the stem is able to be used for production, resulting in high processing costs (USDA 2000) . Hemp seeds are often used in food for their high quality oils and protein (Barkley 2009) . Research is also being conducted into the use of hemp for biodiesel.

Growth of industrial hemp has recently become legal again in Canada for commercial purposes. In the USA, hemp with a very low THC level is legally grown for commercial purposes in a select number of states including North Dakota, Vermont, and Montana. Although these states grant permits for the growth of industrial hemp, it is still illegal under federal law making the crop and farmer susceptible to DEA enforcement.

Hemp as cloth is a very economical and ecologically positive alternative to the industry standard cotton. Hemp fiber is stronger, longer, more absorbent, and more insulative than cotton fiber (HIA n.d.). Hemp requires no chemical pesticides for growth, unlike cotton, whose industry is the leading user of pesticides, requiring more insecticides than any other single major crop in the world (OTA 2009). Hemp is similar to flax which is the fiber used in the production of linen. Hemp has great insulative properties and provides UV protection. Hemp has been used as cloth for as long as it has been domesticated by humans. Hemp textiles are extremely versatile due to its strength. It can be used in the production of clothing, shoes, apparel, canvas, rugs and upholstery. China and central Europe are the main sources of hemp textiles (USDA 2000) .



Using hemp for paper production is an attractive alternative to wood pulp because it is a much more sustainable practice and can yield up to 4 times as much biomass than trees per acre. Hemp paper is marketed as tree-free paper and is very strong and durable and long-lasting. It is said that the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper and that some of America’s founding fathers grew hemp and ran hemp paper mills.

Although hemp is a great alternative to paper produced form trees, “Current research has yet to yield a full-scale commercial pulping technology for anything beyond the high-cost, traditional specialty bast fiber pulps for high strength, thin applications such as bank notes, cigarette paper, and bibles. Though viable markets exist for specialty papers, demand is not increasing at a rate comparable to other wood-based, commodity grade paper (writing paper, fax and copier paper, newsprint, product packaging, etc.). To alleviate pressure on the timber industry or replace wood altogether in commodity-grade papers, high-yield and high-quality pulping technologies specifically for cannabis fiber - which would utilize all of the fiber (bast and core) in the stalk -would have to be developed." (Johnson 1999)

The increasing cost of wood and regulatory practices has encouraged the use of recycled pulp and paper. There may be the potential for industrial hemp as an additive to improve the strength of paper made from recycled materials (USDA 2000) .

Industrial Hemp Legalization in the US

Industrial hemp is grown throughout the world: over 30 countries now grow industrial hemp (NAIHC n.d.) . Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, and Australia all legalized industrial hemp in the 1990s; hemp production was never outlawed in China, Russia, or Hungary (USDA 2000). The European Union has had subsidized hemp cultivation since the 1990s (Leinwand 2005). The United States is the only developed nation that does not recognize the distinction (THC differential) between industrial hemp and marijuana.

Hemp was not always illegal in the United States. There was a vibrant hemp industry in the US in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, all hemp growers were required to register with the Federal Government in order to restrict marijuana production in the United States. Although hemp production reemerged during World War II, restrictions were resumed after the war ended. Hemp production is now banned in the US unless a Drug Enforcement Agency waiver is obtained. Permits are restricted to researchers and police analytical laboratories.

Several advocacy organizations, including the Hemp Industries Association, the North American Industrial Hemp Council, Inc., and VoteHemp were generated in support of the legalization of industrial hemp. In order to improve agricultural competition, seven states have authorized industrial hemp farming. Over half of the states have at least considered laws to allow industrial hemp cultivation or petition for federal reclassification (NAIHC n.d. ). Proponents, such as David Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps , compare the relationship between marijuana and hemp to that of opium and poppy seeds.

Legislators have several fears regarding the legalization of industrial hemp. Some fear that the hemp fields will undermine the war on drugs; farmers will be able to shield crops of illegal marijuana. According to Dr. Paul G. Mahlberg, professor of biology at Indiana University: “When hemp pollinates marijuana it transfers the genes for low drug content to developing seeds of the marijuana. The drug potency in the new marijuana plants will be about half of the original marijuana” (NAIHC n.d.) . The eventual result is a THC content that would be so low as to be useless as a drug plant. Other opponents worry that legalization of hemp would create a “slippery-slope” and result in the legalization of marijuana (Leinwand 2005) . Other legislators oppose legalization on the grounds that there is not evidence that the crop will be economically beneficial. There are worries about the actual yield potential, the small size of the hemp market, and the inability to process hemp profitably in the US
(USDA 2000) .

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